|(Image source: Djurdjica Boskovic on Unsplash)|
Quite a few of us throughout the world this month have been forced to work from home this month. While it is certainly unprecedented in our lifetimes, we do live in an age where us engineering folks can work remotely without too much difficulty. It may take a little bit of adjustment, but it is doable. In fact, I’ve actually been working from my home office for the last 10 years with occasional outings to clients, conferences, and locations for my workshops.
But for those who may be newer to remote work, I thought I would share a few tips for how to adjust to working from home successfully.
1.) Set up a Dedicated Workspace
When working from home it’s important to have a dedicated and removed space from your normal life that will be your workspace. This space is where business gets done and hopefully is isolated away from where there may be distractions, such as the children who are now at home gleefully enjoying a prolonged spring break. This space should also not be in a central location where it would be tempting to talk with a significant other, do house chores, or engage with distractions that often get our attention at home.
There are several locations in a home that can make a great workspace such as:
- A spare bedroom (just don’t be tempted to take a nap because that will become a habit!)
- A space in the garage
- The basement
- A utility closet
For short term, any separated space can work. Personally, I have my main office in my basement where it’s dark and fits the needs of a software developer perfectly. For client discussions, consulting and remote workshops I have a space set up with a white board with lots of light. If I’m working on writing an article, a paper, or a presentation where seeing nature and sunlight may help, I’ll work at the dinner table or out on the back deck if it’s warm out.
Now these last two locations are not isolated and other home activities do take place at these locations so I will literally sit at one place at the kitchen table if I am eating or playing a game and a completely different chair if I am doing work. If I’m outside I sit in one chair for work and a completely different chair for relaxing.
Keeping a distinct separation between what you do at home normally and when you work at home can ensure that you don’t get drawn into home activities during work or worse, get drawn into work activities when you are supposed to be home!
2.) Follow a Consistent Routine
As humans, we are habitual creatures, which means that we typically tend to create routines for ourselves like always reviewing our email in the morning over tea, watching television in the same spot on the couch, taking the same routes to work, etc. The space in which we do things often triggers our habitual responses. If I often sit in front of the television at night snacking but then try to watch a show without a snack, I’ll feel the need to snack on something!
When working from home, it’s important to have a consistent routine in order to ensure we get things done, but also to minimize stress. Remote work is great because it adds flexibility to your schedule, but if you sleep in for an extra hour, take a long lunch break, etc, it can add stress to you which could then reduce your productivity. I’ve found that this happens to me if I flex my time because suddenly its 3:00 in the afternoon and I may not be anywhere near where I thought I would be. I then need to rush or put extra time in at the office that may affect evening plans and schedules.
The first few days and weeks working remotely are critical to setup your routine and stick to it! I often still follow a schedule that is very similar to what I would do if I worked for company. What’s great though is that I don’t have a morning and evening commute, so that right there adds some extra flex time to run on the tread mill or, my personal preference, to take a short afternoon nap.
3.) Avoid House Chores Until Lunch Time
While you're home it’s very tempting to take a few minutes here and there to get some house chores done. After all, how could it hurt to throw some laundry in the wash while you’re on that conference call, or clean up the kitchen table really quick while you walk past? The problem that I’ve found with these little chores here and there is that they tend to start out as an innocent one- or two-minute stop that turn into 15 – 20 minutes or worse. Straightening something up can easily feel productive, especially when that presentation or report that you don’t want to do is next on the list. It can be really easy to turn a quick chore into several hours of procrastination.
Chores should be kept to either a 15-minute break period in the morning and afternoon or for during lunch. My personal preference is during lunch because once you start in on something for 15-minutes, I find that I want to keep going, which then throws off the whole day. So, while it may be tempting to get a few little things done here or there, avoid the temptation and just hunker down and focus on the work for the day. You’ll find that your productivity will be better, and your stress levels will be lower.
4.) Attend Meetings Face-to-Face with an HD Camera
When you’re working remotely, it’s still really important to have face-to-face conversations for several reasons. First, it’s nice to be able to look at someone to observe their facial expressions in order to fully understand what it is that they are saying. If you can’t see them, you may lose some context pertaining to the conversation. Second, if you use a camera, it will prevent you from being tempted to check email, the stock market, or play Candy Crush and lose track of the conversation. This may seem unlikely, but we have very short attention spans these days. Finally, a face-to-face is great to make sure that everyone is paying attention and even understand the environment in which the other person is working.
The biggest issues that I’ve encountered with remote face-to-face meetings has more to do with the quality of the video more than anything else. In many of my calls we resort to white boarding, looking at a board, setup, etc., and if the video stream isn’t quality, then it can be impossible to see clearly. This means more time will be spent trying to understand and solve issues or, worse, someone may check out of the conversation. I personally have several different web cameras that I use for face-to-face calls. The first is a standard HD camera that I use for conversations at my desk. The second is a 110-degree, wide-angle HD camera that captures my white boards. During a call, I can easily switch between cameras to white board or just have a normal conversation.
5.) Get a High-quality Omnidirectional Microphone
The number one issue I often have working remotely is that people use the built-in, low quality microphone that comes in their computer. These microphones are not just low quality but often cut out and have a high noise floor. If you want to have good conversations where everyone can understand each other, invest $100 - $200 on a good omnidirectional microphone. I personally use a Blue Yeti microphone that I’ve had for several years. The quality is superb. The audio crystal clear with nearly no noise. I have yet to have someone complain that the audio quality was bad, minus a poor internet connection (which probably could be tip no. 6).
Working from home can be challenging for some developers if you rely on your colleagues for social support and or if you don’t have a good workspace in your home. Just because you are working remotely though, doesn’t mean that you can’t still be productive. I’ve actually found that when I work, I’m able to get nearly one and half times as much done in the same amount of time. Working outside an office environment can remove distractions and, if you follow the tips in this article, can result in a more efficient work schedule. (Even if efficiency is not what you’re looking for).
Jacob Beningo is an embedded software consultant who currently works with clients in more than a dozen countries to dramatically transform their businesses by improving product quality, cost and time to market. He has published more than 200 articles on embedded software development techniques, is a sought-after speaker and technical trainer and holds three degrees which include a Master of Engineering from the University of Michigan. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, at his website www.beningo.com, and sign-up for his monthly Embedded Bytes Newsletter